The 2021 Women of the Year Awards: Nonprofit Leader – Winner

Jennifer Johnstone heads the Central City Foundation, a community-led organization in Vancouver's inner city.

Nonprofit Leader: Winner
Jennifer Johnstone
President and CEO, Central City Foundation

Like everywhere else, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside saw mixed results for businesses during the first few months of the pandemic last spring. Property services specialist CleanStart BC, based in the troubled inner-city neighbourhood, enjoyed a surge in demand for sanitation and disinfection. But fellow social enterprise EMBERS, a staffing agency, found itself with excess labour as construction slowed down.

That’s where Jennifer Johnstone and the Central City Foundation (CCF) stepped in, bringing the two organizations together and providing funds to redeploy workers where needed. By pooling their resources, the new partners also saw an opportunity to develop a new line of business in home deconstruction. “They suddenly realized there was a great synergy in terms of equipment and people and purpose,” Johnstone says. “There were all kinds of wins in that one for me.”

Since she took charge in 2006, the CCF has tried to better understand what it means to be community-led, explains the Richmond native, whose 30-year career includes serving as executive director of Ballet British Columbia and acting executive director of the Vancity Community Foundation.

“The work at Central City Foundation is rooted in relationship-building, in walking alongside the organizations that work in the inner city,” Johnstone says of the nonprofit, launched by a group of neighbours in 1907. “It’s about building those lasting relationships so we can understand from those most directly affected what the issues are, the kinds of things that will improve conditions in the inner city, and help people to improve their lives.”

To that end, Johnstone responded to the pandemic by advising and working with groups such as the BC Women’s Health Foundation, the Coordinated Community Response Network and the Emergency Community Response Fund. Her efforts helped ensure that front-line organizations received more than $8 million in philanthropic funding.

Johnstone, who is one of four staff, has also moved to an investment model that sets the CCF apart from its peers across the country, using almost half of its capital to buy social purpose real estate. “We’re there on an ongoing, consistent basis to support folks,” the veteran fundraiser says of those holdings, which range from Vancouver affordable housing to a youth treatment centre for addictions in Keremeos.

The CCF has more than doubled its assets during Johnstone’s tenure, to some $40 million. For every dollar spent, the foundation generates $3.90 in social benefit, it estimates. In the fragmented social services sector, Johnstone finds it encouraging that COVID has prompted groups supporting Indigenous and other local residents to collaborate. “When we come together as a community, it gives each of us hope.”